And so we’ve arrived at the Final Four, with four power-conference teams left to battle for the 2014 national championship. Here’s what to look for when the action begins on Saturday evening.
No. 1 Florida vs. No. 7 Connecticut, 6:09 p.m., TBS
How they got here: After finally exorcising their Elite Eight demons, this current crop of Gators seniors at last reaches the Final Four following three straight seasons of falling one game short. They have won all four NCAA tournament games by double digits, but only one – UCLA – came against an opponent seeded higher than ninth. That said, Coach Billy Donovan’s group has looked mighty impressive behind point guard Scottie Wilbekin, with a deep lineup that starts four seniors and features a host of younger role players perfectly content with blending into the spotlight.
Connecticut, meanwhile, has ridden the herculean efforts of senior guard Shabazz Napier, who also happened to have dealt Florida its last loss, 30 games ago, on a buzzer-beater in Storrs. The Huskies are battle-tested in this NCAA tournament, having beaten Saint Joseph’s in overtime followed by wins over No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State and No. 4 Michigan State, the trendy favorite to emerge from the East Region. Instead, it’s plucky Connecticut, led by first-year Coach Kevin Ollie and fresh off an NCAA postseason ban, that has reached North Texas, where shades of Kemba Walker have emerged thanks to Napier’s put-the-team-on-my-backness.
The big story: Obviously, the trendy narrative revolves around Napier and Wilbekin, two of college basketball’s greatest closers. Napier’s hocus-pocus act against the Gators on Dec. 2 boosted Connecticut to a 65-64 victory, while Wilbekin, who was almost coaxed into transferring before the season amid various disciplinary issues, has provided dagger after dagger during Florida’s NCAA tournament run. But keep an eye on the Gators’ defense, ranked No. 1 nationally in efficiency, and how it plans to shut down Napier.
Players to watch: Napier and Wilbekin are the obvious choices here, but at the risk of being redundant, let’s move into the paint. Connecticut forward DeAndre Daniels has been a monster of late, dropping 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting against Iowa State and averaging 17 points per game during his team’s NCAA tournament run. He can stretch the floor (8 for 19 on three-pointers during March Madness) and cleans up on the defensive glass when necessary. It’s unlikely Florida will pull Patric Young away from the basket, but someone will need to chase Daniels around the screens he sets up high for Napier.
For Florida, watch sharpshooter Michael Frazier, the only real semblance of a constant outside threat the Gators have enjoyed, aside from Wilbekin when he turns it on in late-game situations. Connecticut’s defense isn’t outstanding in guarding the arc (116th nationally), and Frazier shoots nearly 45 percent from there. The sophomore guard, who essentially does nothing on offense but launch bombs, shook off a poor game vs. Pittsburgh (2 for 9 on three-pointers) and has hit 7 of 13 since.
No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Kentucky, 8:49 p.m., TBS
How they got here: Steamrolling American, beating Oregon by eight points, routing Baylor by 17 and squeaking past top-seeded Arizona, the Badgers arrive in North Texas seeking their first title game appearance since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. As it stands, Wisconsin has already made history, reaching its first Final Four since 2000, when it lost to Michigan State.
Kentucky, meanwhile, has taken the hardest route possible, beating No. 9 Kansas State in the first round, ending No. 1 Wichita State’s undefeated season in the second, topping streaking No. 4 Louisville in the Sweet 16 and turning to Aaron Harrison for a game-winning three-pointer against No. 2 Michigan in the Elite Eight.
The big story: Coach John Calipari starts five freshmen – the Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew), eventual top-five pick Julius Randle, swingman James Young and center Dakari Johnson. The Badgers, on the other hand, ride an experienced lineup that rotates only two freshmen, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. It will be billed, once again, as the old-versus-new matchup, the electricity of teenagers battling Frank Kaminsky-led Wisconsin, with all its under-the-radar appeal.
Players to watch: Everyone loves Kaminsky. It’s hard not to. He’s 7 feet tall, shoots three-pointers and hung 28 points on Arizona. But let’s go elsewhere for the Badgers, to avoid bludgeoning the Frank the Tank narrative into oblivion. How about Hayes, a 6-7 freshman who might be counted upon in big situations should Coach Bo Ryan decide to employ a big lineup to counter Kentucky’s athleticism. If this happens, it’ll be up to Hayes to help mop up on the defensive glass, particularly against a Wildcats team that leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, corralling 42.5 percent of its misses.
For Kentucky, the big question is who guards Kaminsky? Will it be Randle, who has posted four double-doubles during this NCAA tournament? Or will it be Johnson, the 7-footer who can match up to Kaminsky’s size but gets dwarfed in terms of experience? Whoever Calipari tabs – and granted, he might turn to a zone to avoid the one-on-one nightmare – will be the key for the Wildcats.
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